Rainiers notes: Ellis belts walk-off slam, Wall steals 52 to cap season

Jeff Halstead

As Drew Ellis waited his turn to bat in the ninth inning of Tacoma’s Sept. 21 contest at Cheney Stadium, he watched from the home dugout as a trio of Rainiers reached, loading the bases before him.

The Rainiers were down to their final two outs, and they trailed Triple-A Round Rock by three runs. Ellis turned to teammate Forrest Wall, and though his following comment was admittedly frivolous, he predicted perhaps his unrivaled season highlight – a walk-off grand slam that rewarded those still in attendance with an unthinkable and unimaginable victory.

Facing reliever Nick Snyder, a fresh arm, Ellis took strike one. He fouled off strike two.

“Before I walked up to the plate, I said (to Forrest), ‘if there are runners on here, this game is over,’” Ellis told The News Tribune Saturday. “I got down 0-2 pretty quick, but I was seeing the ball well.”

He paused. “I’ve been seeing the ball well.”

Snyder’s third and fatal offering was a slider – low, but over the plate’s heart. Tacoma’s second baseman golfed it an estimated 416 feet to left field, and it eventually disappeared beyond the outfield lights. It capped a five-run comeback in the final frame and helped even a six-game series after Tacoma dropped a Sept. 20 opener with Round Rock in extras.

Manager Tim Federowicz knew instantly of the ball’s destination, which gave the Rainiers an improbable 7-6 win. Everyone did.

“He knows he just needs to have a good at-bat and get on-base,” Federowicz said. “The pass-the-baton mentality. And that kind of happens when you’re looking to take a single up the middle.

“Sometimes you catch it out front and do something like that.”

Ellis admired the game-winning blast, pointing to the outfield while rounding third. Teammate and fellow-infielder Jonathan Villar motioned for Ellis to fling off his helmet; he obliged.

Tacoma’s hero performed the popular “Griddy” dance onto home plate – something he called a “spur of the moment” – and a mob of teammates doused him in Gatorade.

“I’m just going to do something fun, and hit the Griddy for the boys,” Ellis thought. “I think they all loved it.

“With this group of guys, it’s fun. It’s a fun atmosphere here, and we like to have fun. To hit a walk-off grand slam is really cool.”

The walk-off slam was Tacoma’s second of the season, coincidentally against the same Express team. Alex Blandino smacked the first in a 6-4 final at Cheney Stadium back on June 10.

But Ellis’ slam provided more than Wednesday’s miraculous comeback: it validated a late-season shift in the 26-year-old’s approach, skyrocketing his slash line to .357/.471/.762 across the final dozen games of his campaign.

Seattle claimed Ellis off waivers from Arizona in June, and he debuted with Triple-A Tacoma on June 19. He appeared in one major league game with the Mariners on June 26, singling in his first at-bat in a 2-1 loss at Angel Stadium in Anaheim.

The Mariners then optioned him back to the Rainiers, and Ellis slashed .215/.333/.452 with nine home runs and 24 RBI in his next 52 games.

“I was kind of lost for a part of this year, not feeling great,” he said, “and I’m pretty proud of myself for the way I handled things. I could have easily been like, ‘this season’s over. I had a bad year.’ But I told myself, let’s have a good month, or a good two weeks, or whatever it is, and go out with a bang.”

Ellis fine-tuned his swing in the hitting cages, prioritizing consistency. And most importantly, he’s trusting the adjustments, he said.

In the final two games of a road series in Las Vegas on Sept. 17-18, Ellis launched three home runs and six hits, in total. Only two nights after the Sept. 21 walk-off slam, he homered again Friday – a no-doubter pulled to left field that whacked the roof of the “R Bar” and bounced into the Foss High School parking lot.

The solo blast, Ellis’ 19th of the season, jump started Friday’s 4-1 Rainiers victory. They won again Sunday, securing four of six games over Round Rock in the final home series of Tacoma’s season from Sept. 20-25.

Dating back to 2012, the Rainiers have won 20 of their last 27 games against the Triple-A Express at Cheney Stadium. They’re 30-9 all-time against Round Rock at home.

“We have fun,” Ellis said. “We have a good atmosphere here. A lot of guys like to have fun. We don’t put too much pressure on ourselves. It’s baseball. You’re supposed to come out here and have fun. I think guys are realizing that.

“We’re appreciating each other’s company for as long as we can.”

WALL SWIPES 52

With 47 stolen bases after Friday night’s win, Forrest Wall’s intentions were unequivocally clear.

“Three more,” he said with a smile before Saturday’s game, inside Cheney Stadium’s home dugout. “Three more. 50 is the goal.”

The Rainiers lost Saturday’s contest 7-6 to Round Rock, the penultimate game of their home slate. But Wall led off the first inning with a base hit and instantly stole second, quickly to 48 steals.

In the sixth, he reached and took second base again for stolen base number 49.

“(50’s) something I’ve never done,” Wall said. “I take a lot of pride in base running.”

Split among three minor league clubs in 2018, he stole 38 bases, a previous career-best.

But Sunday brought a new milestone: Wall took his 50th base in the seventh, following a leadoff single. The 26-year-old outfielder became the second player in Tacoma franchise history to swipe 50 bases since 1960, trailing only Jimmy Sexton (56 SB) of the 1981 Tacoma Tigers, then an Oakland A’s affiliate.

Federowicz gave Wall every opportunity to reach the half-century mark.

“(Forrest’s) always had the green light,” Tacoma’s manager said Saturday, chuckling. “I let these guys run whenever they want, as long as they’re smart about it.”

Wall stole 10 bases in April, foreshadowing the historic stretch. Upon reaching 40 steals on Sept. 9, Wall set his sights on 50.

“It’s been awesome,” he said of his season, sporting a .255/.333/.354 slash line with 105 hits and 41 RBI in 120 games for the Rainiers in 2022. “Really good group of guys, great coaching staff. The town has been great. It’s just been awesome.”

Wall stole another pair of bases in Tacoma’s season-ending road series in Reno, first on Monday and again in Wednesday’s series finale.

The final tally: 52, besting all of the Pacific Coast League.

“Once I’m on,” Wall said, “I’m just trying to get to the next base in any way possible.”

TACOMA SWEPT IN FINAL ROAD SERIES

Tacoma’s season ended with a brief, three-game stop in Reno for three games with the Triple-A Aces. They dropped contests Monday and Tuesday by identical 7-2 scores, and were swept in Wednesday’s 11-1 defeat.

The series concluded Tacoma’s 2022 campaign rather quietly, but the Rainiers finished the month of September at 14-11. Federowicz’s first career managerial season featured a stellar second half, where Tacoma nearly resurfaced above the .500 mark in the schedule’s final week.

By June 28, Tacoma’s record had plunged to a season-low 16 games under .500. But from then on, they finished 44-34.

The Rainiers were 34-27 after July’s All-Star break, and lost only two series from August on.

“Some guys were still getting into a groove,” Federowicz said of his club. “We had a shortened spring training, so a lot of guys didn’t have the regular (plate) appearances or at-bats they would have in a normal spring.

“We just hit our stride, and started winning some games.”

Tacoma finishes the season at 72-78, good for a second-place finish in the Pacific Coast League West. Reno, the division champs, finished at 85-63.

Federowicz called his first season fun and “eye-opening.”

“I always had ideas about how I wanted to manage going in,” he said, a former eight-year major league catcher. “Coming in here and experimenting with (the group) has been a lot of fun, and it’s helped a lot.”

SHORT HOPS

– Tacoma’s front office and coaching staff presented annual team awards to four players Sunday’s home finale.

Most Valuable Player, INF Erick Mejia – slashed .261/.330/.433 in 120 games for Triple-A Tacoma this season, adding 121 hits, 15 home runs, and 58 RBI in 521 plate appearances. Mejia sported a .951 fielding percentage in 539 ⅓ innings at third base.

Hitter of the Year, Jarred Kelenic – Seattle’s former top prospect excelled in multiple Triple-A stints, slashing .296/.366/.557 with 18 homers and 65 RBI in 86 total games.

Initially optioned to the Rainiers to “catch his breath” after a sluggish start in the major leagues, Kelenic adjusted his swing to lift the ball more in the air. His strikeout rate dwindled, down to 15.8 percent in his most recent stint. On Sept. 21, Seattle recalled him back to the Mariners.

“I’m really happy for Jarred Kelenic,” said Mariners manager Scott Servais at the Oakland Coliseum, after his 23-year-old center fielder launched a homer in return to major league game action on Sept. 22. “It has not been easy for him. We talked when he got in yesterday. It’s just about doing whatever you can to help us win a game.

“And he did more than that today.”

Pitcher of the Year, Nick Ramirez – Tacoma’s primary closer, Ramirez posted a team-best 16 saves in 53 total appearances, going 3-4 with a 2.93 ERA in 55 ⅓ innings.

Defensive Player of the Year, Mason McCoy – The trusty shortstop posted an impressive .986 fielding percentage in 109 games at the position. The 27-year-old converted 431 of 437 defensive chances, committing only six errors in 978 ⅓ total innings.

– Mason McCoy is the first Rainiers player to achieve a 20-homer, 20-steal season since Tacoma became a Seattle affiliate in 1995.

– Seattle promoted LF Cade Marlowe to Triple-A Tacoma on Sept. 14, and the 25-year-old quickly began a torrid stretch in the closing months of his campaign.

Marlowe, previously with Double-A Arkansas, homered in three consecutive games for the Rainiers from Sept. 21-23. He won the organization’s Ken Griffey Jr. minor league hitter of the year award in 2021, and slashed .291/.380/.483 with 20 home runs and 86 RBI in 120 Double-A games prior to his promotion.

Marlowe is 13-for-52 (.250) with three homers and 16 RBI in 13 games for the Rainiers this month.

“He’s been great to have around,” Federowicz said. “He’s a hard worker. He’s a good kid. It’s been good to see the success he’s had.”